By Kyle G. King. This is RETROGRADING, where an acute sense of touch gives us strength and balance.
THE FILM: Daredevil
RECOLLECTIONS: After the wildly successful X-Men hit and dominated the market, studios started buying up all the film rights to superhero properties they could get their hands on. The first to rear its horned head in an obvious cash grab was Daredevil. But much like its titular hero, Daredevil the film seemed perfectly happy to leap off a building without thinking of where it needed to land. Stuck between its source material (a rock) and studio pressure to churn out another Spider-Man-level hit (a hard place), director-screenwriter Mark Steven Johnson squirmed to deliver a hero to theaters most audiences were, in those days, totally unfamiliar with.
Presented as a darker hero than the universally beloved web-head (with way too many Evanesence songs burdening his soundtrack), red leather-clad Daredevil (Ben Affleck) broke pool cues across the backs of low-level criminals in seedy bars and dark alleyways. But Twentieth Century Fox took issue with the dark themes and the tragedy inherent to attorney Matt Murdock, pushing Johnson for more comedy between Matt and his legal partner Foggy Nelson (Jon Favreau, later earning Marvel Studios’ favor by directing Iron Man) and more romance between Matt and Elektra Natchios (Jennifer Garner, who somehow ended up in an Elektra spin-off). The convoluted PG-13 mess that hit theaters made money with a naive movie-going crowd, but ended up as a cautionary tale for audiences who blindly trusted anything in a cape or cowl.
THE DIRECTOR: Mark Steven Johnson, teamed with producers Gary Foster and Avi Arad, pushed for the release of an R-rated director’s cut on DVD. Twentieth Century Fox, red-faced with creative failure, shrugged and agreed. Dressed with thirty minutes of additional footage (most of which concerned a courtroom subplot involving a cameo by early 2000’s hip-hop artist du jour, Coolio) and cut with more favor towards tragedy, Daredevil’s director’s cut still falls flat on its face. But its flailing before impact is better realized, as its R rating doesn’t completely sanitize its own grittiness.
It’s still difficult to discern where Johnson’s vision ended and where Fox’s began, as it often seems like three or even four different movies are competing for screen time with wildly different tones. But behind his push for a darker hero (who apparently kinda murders people), Johnson reveals a tortured hero in Murdock, one that Hollywood had yet to fully trust with its mainstream fare. (Blade being a rare example to the contrary.) Johnson would go on to run wild with another Marvel hero in Ghost Rider, but his cut of Daredevil, where a battle between good and evil inside a single person trying to do some good, remains Johnson’s most interesting — and altogether most disappointing — offering to the comic movie oeuvre.
THE CAST: With red tussled hair and colorless contacts Ben Affleck fills out great as smug lawyer Matt Murdock, but in awkward fitting red leather and a grimacing cowl, he is less than striking as ol’ Hornhead. Burdened by a lot of embarrassing CGI renderings or equally uncomfortable fights on wires, Affleck never had much of a chance to define DD’s distinct fighting style. He’s mostly left to crawl around on the ground while everyone takes his mask off (why is he so bad at keeping his mask on?). Affleck’s turn as DC’s Batman would seem like an act of retribution on some level.
Opposite him, Jennifer Garner is sexy lamp that fights and not much else. Trapped inside romantic cliches, Elektra has little to showcase other than some awful jade green contacts and non-threatening fighting techniques. Jon Favreau and Joe Pantoliano (as beat reporter Ben Ulrich) both seem to understand how to handle supporting roles in crime movies, but the film’s villains, Colin Ferrell and Michael Clarke Duncan, both appear to be in a movie all their own. As hurt and human as Daredevil is, Ferrell’s Bullseye does backflips off motorcycles and kills men with paper clips — to put a finer point on the film’s messy tone.
Michael Clarke Duncan as Wilson Fisk is easily an intimidating physical force, but the script doesn’t try hard enough to link him to any of the business or crime threads running through “his city.” Ultimately, the final battle between The Kingpin and Daredevil seems gratuitous for melodrama, action, and an overabundance of hammy one-liners.
NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE? A repressed nightmare for certain, but one we shouldn’t block out. Daredevil taught us not to trust all the hero flicks that come our way, in a time where we thought we could forget Batman & Robin and optimistically move ahead. Plagued by too much studio involvement and way too much nü-metal, Daredevil came at a time where the world wasn’t ready for an alt-street level hero. The Man Without Fear would later find success in a post-Dark Knight cinematic landscape, but it ultimately stirred up a lot of fear in 2003, when studios hoped for easy money in their comic book fodder. It’s a lesson they’re still learning today.
RETROGRADE: 4.5 out of 10